Archaeologists uncovering a church site in Oxford have found skeletons of nuns who died in disgrace after being accused of ‘sex-crazed’ behavior.
Discovered during planned construction close to Oxford United football stadium, the burial ground is over what used to be Littlemore Priory, a nunnery established in 1110.
The skeleton of one woman was found face down, and researchers believe she may have been one of the infamous ‘sinner nuns’ who forced the nunnery to shut down in 1524.
Researchers led by Paul Murray of John Moore Heritage Services found 92 skeletons of ladies, men, and children.
Most of the of the burials were females, at 35, with males accounting for 28. The researchers said it was difficult to determine the gender of the remaining 29.
Archaeologists released photos of the grisly discovery this week, explaining that some of the bodies were buried upside down, a “mark of shame” that has to lead them to believe that they had been responsible for lewd, or immoral behavior. So called “prone burials” are thought to have been reserved for witches or sinners.
‘Burials within the church are likely to represent wealthy or eminent individuals, nuns and prioresses,’ Murray said in a statement.
‘Those buried outside most likely represent the laity and a general desire to be buried as near the religious heart of the church as possible,’ he added.
A few skeletons showed signs of health problems, including 2 children who suffered from severe limps, according to Discovery News.
One burial had signs of leprosy, while another included a stillborn baby in a well made casket and a woman buried in a face down position.
Murray believes the woman’s unusual position may have been a penitential act by those who buried her, in the hope it would atone for her sins.
Such burials, dubbed ‘prone burials’, are usually reserved for witches or sinners.
The priory was surrounded by scandal in its final year’s, with some nuns being accused of ‘immoral and lewd’ behavior.
The latest prioress, Katherine Wells, for instance, is believed an illegitimate daughter with the father being a priest who still visited her.
Eileen Power in her book Medieval English Nunneries portrays the priory as ‘one of the worst nunneries of which records survived’ and this was ‘largely due to a particularly bad prioress, Katherine Wells’.
Wells was also believed to have taken a great part of the priory’s goods and pawned its valuables to provide the girl with a dowry.
Within the last year, another of the nuns had had an illegitimate child whose father was a married man in Oxford.
A visitation carried out in 1445 describe the dormitory as ‘so ruinous the nuns were afraid to sleep there’ and ‘that the nuns were sleeping two to a bed’ with even the prioress having to share her bed.
The sins committed were so grave by medieval standards that the nunnery was permanently close down in 1542 by the one-time adviser to King Henry VIII, Thomas Wolsey, who made the final call.
Transformed into a farmhouse, the priory might be incorporated into a new hotel being built at the site as a restaurant.